Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Because I am in #campold, a dinner party conversation I had last weekend was about colonoscopies. More specifically, the person who brought it up was talking about their anxiety – they’ve never had a colonoscopy. Neither have I*, which is probably why I gleefully suggested they should read the hilarious chapter on colonoscopies in David Sedaris’s eighth collection of essays, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.

It’s been quite a few years since I read any Sedaris. Why did I leave it so long?! It’s a triple-threat memoir (i.e. one that is equal parts candid, funny and melancholy). In this collection, Sedaris once again draws heavily on his childhood, weaving stories from his youth with more recent events.

My favourite essay was Laugh, Kookaburra, a description of a visit to Australia (a country he describes as ‘…Canada in a thong’). A friend takes him on a day trip to Daylesford, where he has the opportunity to feed a kookaburra.

If owls were the professors of the avian kingdom, then kookaburras, I thought, might well be the gym teachers.

This experience reminds Sedaris of a time when he and his sister sang The Kookaburra Song repeatedly in bed one night. Their father told them multiple times to stop, but David kept returning to Amy’s room for another chorus. His father eventually gave him a beating. Sedaris reflects –

What would strike me afterwards was the innocence of it. If I had children and they stayed up late, singing a song about a bird, I believe I would find it charming.

In Memory Laps, David’s recollection of swimming carnivals brilliantly illustrates his efforts to gain his father’s attention, and equally how his father’s admiration for Greg Sakas, one of David’s swimming teammates, chipped away at his self-esteem. When David eventually beats Greg in a race, his father is indifferent – he’s moved on to another kid who he holds up as the ‘ideal’. David’s mother observes –

“You’re a good swimmer…not the best maybe but who wants to be the best at something you do in a bathing suit.”

This story, like the others, has many funny moments but it also reveals the deeper hurt, and the parts of us that are always vulnerable to a parent’s criticism or praise.

Many of the essays reflect on Sedaris’s time living in France and England – the piece on French dentists and his months collecting roadside litter in the English countryside, stand out.

The book concludes with six fictional stories intended to be read by high-school students as monologues in story-telling competitions (!). The stories are vicious exposés of everyday bigots and homophobes, picking up on the themes that Sedaris has humorously, and sometimes tenderly, examined in the essays. Although I understand Sedaris’s intention with these stories, they felt out of step with what was otherwise a warm and smart collection.

4/5 So, so funny (and enhanced by listening to the audio version, read by Sedaris).

*sorry for the overshare.

14 responses

  1. David Sedaris is so great. I have this somewhere, I’ll dig it out for a quick dip in today. I’ve really enjoyed his live appearances too so I can imagine the audiobook works well.

    After 20-odd years working in healthcare I have no boundaries left at all, so I didn’t think you remotely overshared 😀

  2. I’ve read eight Sedaris books now — almost all of them? — and while this isn’t one of my favourites I do remember getting some good laughs from it. I think you’d also like his latest, Calypso.

    • Some of the audiobook was a live recording of a reading. He came to Australia a couple of years ago I think but I didn’t get to see him – would love to though.

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  4. Hahah. Not sure that technically qualifies as an overshare as readers likely deserve to know if your response is based on whether Sedaris is an authority on the matter. I love his way of finding the unfunny in the absurdities of life but, like you, it’s been too long since I read one of his books!

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